Much to Claire’s frustration, June continued in the same manner as Faith’s party had, as far as Jamie was concerned.
At the stables, Jamie was perfect with Faith, as he always was. He gave her all of his attention every second.
All of it.
Even those moments that Claire had come to cherish — moments that happened while Erica held the reins with Faith and Jamie hung back to stroll with Claire — were gone. He always seemed to have something to talk to Erica about, something to correct or praise Faith with.
And Claire drifted behind like a useless fool.
You’re mad, Beauchamp. He’s doing his job. He doesn’t take leisurely strolls with the other moms.
She glanced down at Faith, wearing the purple t-shirt that he had given her, staring up at Mister Jamie like he was a god among men.
I’m not like the other moms.
The month dragged on; Faith was making progress with Pippi, with Angus, and with Mrs. Lickett. She and Claire were now regularly exchanging I love you’s, which Claire didn’t think would ever cease to make her tear up. Every morning, before Claire left for work, they would give each other the sign, touching each of the raised fingers together like their own little handshake.
Every single one was precious to her.
The Saturday before the Fourth of July, the stables were having another holiday event like they had at Easter, a barbecue with water activities. Claire had given Faith the rundown to prepare her, as she always did, but Faith seemed more excited than anything else.
That place is her home, and she knows it.
When the day of the barbecue rolled around, Claire was almost as excited as her daughter. The Abernathy’s had invited them to a barbecue in their own backyard on the actual holiday, but Claire was scheduled to work that day and had had to turn them down. This day at the stables was to be Claire’s first taste of the most American holiday she had experienced yet. It was silly, really, how excited she was. She’d even purchased some red, white, and blue garb from Target, and then second-guessed herself, wondering if she’d just be making it painfully obvious that she wasn’t really American by wearing such things.
Apparently, she would fit right in.
Everyone at the stables was fully decked out for the occasion, and it delighted Claire to the marrow of her bones that she had predicted exactly how American the entire affair would be. She received no shortage of teasing for being English on Independence Day, one dad even emptying his cup of iced-tea in front of her in some attempt at a joke. His wife was mortified, but Claire was tickled pink.
Faith hummed, bounced, and stimmed without restraint. There was an oscillating sprinkler running in the middle of the open field, and kids were running through the wall of water in their clothes. Faith seemed eager to do just that and, though Claire wasn’t too keen on letting her wet her clothes, she couldn’t say no when she was so excited. Luckily for Angus, Claire untethered him, pretty sure that he would not appreciate being dragged through running water repeatedly. Claire watched her play, holding tightly to Erica’s hand, and she was in Heaven.
Well, aside from the fact that Jamie’s only greeting had been a curt wave from across the field.
You’re not bloody special, Beauchamp. He’s working right now.
There were a few organized games, including a water balloon toss. Thomas ended up “losing” fairly quickly because, instead of tossing the balloon, he smashed it on his father’s head with a savage roar that sent Faith’s hands flying to her ears. Claire couldn’t stop the sputtering laugh that erupted from her.
Additionally, there was a dunk tank that the therapists and volunteers took turns sitting in. After the water balloon toss concluded, the rotation of dunk-ees continued, and Claire watched with amusement as Jo and Kezzie worked tirelessly to dunk Miss Jessica.
Then, the smell of barbecue filled Claire’s nose, and her mouth began watering.
“Smells good, doesn’t it?” Mary said.
“It really does,” Claire said, astonished. “If you’d have told me a year ago I’d be drooling over American barbecue on the Fourth of July, I’d never have believed you.”
Mary giggled. “Well, they do it really well here. You’ll love it. So will your little foodie.”
Claire smiled down at Faith, and then snapped her head up at the sound of the dunk tank seat collapsing and dumping Miss Jessica into the water. Claire was glad she’d put Faith’s headphones on after the incident with Thomas’s yelling, because the dunk tank and the subsequent victory cheers were quite loud.
“Oo, Claire!” Mary squealed, shoving her shoulder. “Look who’s getting in!”
Claire watched as Toni and a now-soaking-wet Jessica yanked Jamie toward the dunk tank. She felt a surge of what she could only describe as a shameful thrill.
“You have to do it,” Mary said, shoving her again.
“Me?” Claire exclaimed. “I couldn’t.”
Mary giggled. “Oh, you could.”
Claire, Faith, and Angus shuffled closer to the dunk tank in response to Mary’s shoving and suddenly a ball was thrust into her hand. Claire looked up to see it was Toni who had put it there. She handed a second ball to Faith and began showing her how to throw, moving her headphones aside so she could hear.
“Watch Mommy try!” Toni said, and Claire blanched. She looked up through the clear plastic to see Jamie smirking at her, sitting in the little seat with his hands folded in his lap like a giant child. She blinked in shock a bit, unaccustomed to seeing that playfulness that had been missing between them for over a month.
She felt a rush of heat, blamed it on the July weather, and gave him a wicked grin.
“Watch Mummy, Faith,” Claire said, and after Toni put the headphones back in place, Claire hurled the ball at the target, missing by a long shot. Claire looked up to see Jamie looking far too amused for her liking, and she crouched down to encourage Faith to go. She very clumsily threw the ball directly into the ground, but Toni and Claire signed applause for her anyway, and she giggled and smiled, blissfully unaware.
Mother and daughter went back and forth for a few more turns, and just when Claire was about to give up and hand the balls off to someone else, she gave one final hurl, directly into the target.
She watched with wicked delight as the seat deposited Jamie into the tank. He could easily have avoided going under, being that he was far taller than the tank, but he hadn’t seemed to be expecting that Claire would actually get him.
Serves him right , she thought haughtily.
He dragged himself out of the tank, and Faith was laughing her little head off. Like mother, like daughter, Claire supposed. Jamie shook his head, releasing a spray of water from his ruddy curls, not unlike Angus after a bath. He was laughing heartily, and he ran fingers through the soaking red mop, then he turned around to find the guilty party.
Claire’s temperature instantly rose about five degrees.
The previously loose, grey t-shirt with an American flag on the chest was now clinging to him, leaving nothing to the imagination. His eyes were smiling, and his mouth was quirked in that ridiculous crooked grin.
“Well done, Sassenach!” he called, shaking his hands off and laughing again.
“Well done, indeed,” Fanny whispered in her ear conspiratorially, nudging Claire’s back.
Claire felt herself flush red from head to toe, her tongue darting out to lick her lips, ogling at him like he was on display at a wet t-shirt competition.
“Are you alive, Claire?” Mary teased, snapping her out of it.
Just when she thought she was going to die of shame, she heard a loud thud, which pulled her attention away from Mary. Her eyes widened to see that Jamie had slipped in the grass and fallen on his face. Panic seized her heart, and she frantically handed Angus’s leash over to Mary, who stood by, bewildered.
You stupid fool. The man’s gone and hurt himself because you had to go and get him wet so you could feast your shameful eyes.
“Jamie?” Claire said, kneeling beside him. “Are you alright?”
He was still laughing, the bloody man.
“I’m fine, Sassenach,” he said, waving her off.
“Your chin, it’s bleeding,” Claire said.
“Ah, would ye look at that,” he said sheepishly, sitting up on his knees.
His chin is literally bleeding, Beauchamp. Eyes off the wet shirt. Eyes off the wet shirt…
Before she could get a hold of herself, Toni was holding a napkin out to Jamie that she’d retrieved from the snack table, and he pressed it into the cut on his chin.
“Is there a first aid kit in the welcome center?” Claire asked, standing up to address Toni.
“Yeah, behind the counter.”
“I’ll take care of it. I’m a doctor, after all. And besides,” She bent down to help him up. “This is my fault.”
“Dinna fash yerself, lass. It’ll stop soon enough. I dinna need — ”
“Don’t be ridiculous. You were just face-down in the dirt. It needs to be properly cleaned.”
“I think I can — ”
“No objections, thank you,” she interjected, making her way toward the building, expecting him to follow. “Mary, is she alright with you?” Claire turned, and Mary nodded. Before continuing, she shot Jamie a dangerous look and watched as his resolve crumbled right before her eyes. Victorious, she continued her march to the welcome center, knowing full well that he was following her this time.
When they arrived, Jamie crouched down behind the counter, emerging with a small first aid kit. “Here we are.”
Claire snatched it from him and began digging inside. “Are you dizzy at all? Do you taste blood?”
“I’m fine, Sassenach. It’s just a wee scratch.”
“That napkin is soaked with blood, Jamie. Fine isn’t the word I’d use.” She pulled gloves on and ripped open an alcohol wipe. “Pull the bin over.”
She realized she was being awfully demanding over a small cut, but her pent up anger was pouring out of her before she could stop it. He had some damn nerve to avoid her for over a month and then act like it hadn’t happened at all. Stiffening a bit, he obeyed, pulling the bin beneath them, and Claire discarded the wrapper.
“Throw out that napkin, I’m going to clean the wound.”
“ Wound, she says.” Jamie rolled his eyes with a crooked smirk.
Claire didn’t entertain that, keeping her lips shut tight as she swiped the alcohol wipe over the cut. “Something like this could need stitches, or could easily get infected.” Satisfied that it was properly disinfected, she stuffed clean gauze onto his chin.
“Go into the bathroom, clean your face, wash your hands. Take more gauze with you.” She thrusted the gauze at him, and he laughed.
He bloody laughed at me.
She watched him go, shaking his head and still chuckling, and it made her bloody furious .
And she couldn’t put her finger on why .
When he emerged from the bathroom, he was clean of blood, and without any gauze.
“Where’s the gauze?” she fired.
“The bin. It already stopped bleeding.” He shrugged, putting his hands in those damn pockets.
“Are you sure?” She strode right up to him, tilting his chin up with a gloved hand, examining the cut.
“Aye, I’m sure! Christ, Sassenach, what’s gotten into ye?”
“Nothing’s gotten into me . I think I’m allowed to be concerned for your well being.” She removed her gloves and threw them in the bin. “Especially when you’re not taking it seriously.”
“My well being is quite intact. No need to get yerself worked up.”
“I’m not…” She took a deep breath, crossing her arms. “I’m not worked up.” Her voice softened considerably, and she had to physically force her eyes to remain on his face and not on the muscles that were painfully visible through his soaked shirt.
Not worked up, indeed, Beauchamp.
“Are ye sure ye’re alright?” Jamie said, softening his voice as she did. “Ye seem out of sorts today.”
“Me?” Claire said, immediately forgetting her previous claims, becoming defensive right away. “You’ve been out of sorts for a whole month now!”
“Have I, now?” he said cautiously, eyes narrowing. “How d’ye mean?”
“Well, you…” She felt her face flushing red. She couldn’t very well say that she noticed that he hadn’t been touching her as often as he used to. She wasn’t supposed to notice he was touching her in the first place.
“Faith’s birthday party,” she said quickly. “You hardly looked at me. I don’t think you looked me in the eye once.”
“Should I be keeping tallies of our eye-contact, then?” he said with the slightest glimmer of a familiar lopsided grin.
“Deflecting with humor!”
“Deflecting…” He shook his head, seemingly in disbelief. “I dinna wish to continue this conversation,” Jamie said, his voice tight, but still light-hearted.
“Why? There is obviously something wrong, and you refuse to talk about it!” He stopped immediately, halfway turned to the door, apparently frozen by her words. “Jamie, talk to me.” She took several deliberate steps toward him. “We’ve told each other…just about everything, haven’t we?” Her voice and her gaze softened, and she let her hands drop from her hips. “I can’t help but feel like there’s something bothering you that you’re not telling me.”
He sighed heavily, and it was like watching a giant balloon slowly deflate.
“Is it Jenny?” Panic suddenly seized her heart, and she admonished herself for being so selfish. “Is something wrong?”
“No, Sassenach. Jen’s alright. So are the bairns, Ian, Da. Everything is fine.” He still remained halfway turned away from her.
She sighed with relief, self-consciously crossing her arms over her chest. “Okay. So it’s something else?”
He finally turned to fully face her again, though he still wouldn't look her in the eye. “I…I canna tell ye, Claire.”
Claire rapidly blinked back her shock, recoiling slightly. “Can’t tell me? Me? Jamie, I’ve told you things that I never said out loud before. Not even to Gillian, not the details at least. How can you think there’s anything you can’t tell me?”
He shook his head, and he looked very much like he wanted to run away, but he remained rooted in place. “I’m sorry, Claire.”
His muscles seemed to be trembling beneath the clinging, soaking material. Claire had never been so flustered and so close to tears in her life.
“Christ, Jamie…you’re the closest friend I have right now. It’s…it’s bothering the hell out of me that you don’t feel like you can talk — ”
“Friend?” He cut her off, his eyes flicking around as if watching a fly on the counter, but he still would not look at her. Her pulse quickened for reasons unknown to her, and she involuntarily dug her nails into her arms.
“Yes, Jamie! My friend!” she stated flatly, nodding her head for emphasis.
He finally looked at her, holding her gaze, his eyes a shade of blue she’d never seen before. She’d previously thought of them as oceans, as reflections of the sky, but at this moment, they looked like the center of a flame, like burning electricity. She dug her nails further into her skin, and her breath hitched in her throat.
He abruptly turned, striding immediately toward the door.
“Jamie!” She took wide strides to keep up with him, grabbing him by his cold, wet shoulder. “Jamie, stop! You can’t just — ”
Before she could blink, there was a blur of motion and colors, there were hands on either side of her face, and something hot and wet on her mouth.
Lips. His lips .
Her eyes popped wide open, every muscle in her body contracting, turning to solid rock as his forward motion thrust her back into the counter.
What was he doing? What was he doing ?
He’s kissing you, you bloody idiot.
What are you doing?
Her hand was still resting uselessly on his shoulder. She squeezed experimentally, letting her eyes slip closed, letting her body relax as much as she could.
He moved his mouth, presumably in response to her grip on his shoulder, devouring her lips like a man starved, his grip on her face feeling bruising.
Holy fucking shit.
Without even thinking, she responded, moving with him as if in a choreographed dance. She felt herself go flush against him, felt his muscles solidifying against every inch of her body, felt his clothing making her own clothing just as wet as his. It was cold, and hot, and soft, and sturdy all at once.
Her body was on fire, inside and out. She couldn’t think straight. The world was tipping on its side, and she was sliding off the edge, with nothing but Jamie to cling to for balance. Against her own will, and against every ounce of better judgement, she pulled his bottom lip into her mouth, suckling and stroking it with her tongue. He gasped against her mouth and his teeth grazed her upper lip. Claire felt the beginnings of a wanton moan bubbling in the back of her throat —
And then it stopped as abruptly as it had begun. She suddenly stopped feeling his lips, stopped feeling his body against her. He’d pushed her away a few inches, still maintaining his grip on her face. When she opened her eyes, he was just staring at her, in shock, in horror. His eyes were wide, his entire face and neck were burning bright red, his enormous hands trembling like mad.
“Christ. I’m sorry.” Jamie jumped a foot away as if scalded. “I’m so sorry. That was…I’m sorry.”
Oh my God.
Claire’s mind was working overtime, and it was especially difficult to think because she couldn’t fucking breathe .
All this time… all this time .
She’d known; of course she’d known. But he never asked anything of her, never implied that he wanted anything like this . She thought when he’d started keeping his distance it had gone away, the little crush that he’d had on her…
Little crush .
The passion he just poured into her was anything but little.
And God, she’d drunk it in like a greedy beast.
All this time .
He’d been keeping her at arm’s length, keeping his mouth shut. Because if he got any closer, if he broke the seal, he’d explode.
Like that .
He’d kept a lid on it all this time, and just now, Claire had thoughtlessly tossed the lid aside, forcing him to confront something that he’d tried to keep locked away.
Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ…I’ve been so fucking blind .
Whatever… this was…it was far more intense than Claire had ever anticipated.
And she’d kissed him back.
"Claire?" His brow furrowed as he stepped forward to grasp her shoulders. "Ye're trembling, lass…”
She could only manage to open her lips and emit sputtering breaths, unable to tear her eyes off of his panicked face.
“I’m…I’m sorry, Claire…” He immediately removed his hands from her, running fingers through his wet hair and averting his gaze. “I shouldnae done that. I’m so sorry…can ye forgive me?”
The only thing Claire could think of was how her body ached at the loss of contact.
Exhaling heavily to embolden herself, she closed the small distance he’d made, grabbed his face, and pressed her lips to his.
She could feel his shock, feel every muscle tense, his lips frozen solid beneath hers, until his mind caught up to his body. He simply melted beneath her, pulling her lower lip between both of his with the gentlest care. She whimpered involuntarily as his hands snaked around her waist, and rested on her back, pulling her impossibly closer. It was as if they were carved from the same stone, by the same hands, two halves of sculpted perfection, finally joining together and fitting sublimely.
She hadn’t realized they weren’t moving at all, both still frozen in shock and unsure how to proceed, until she felt him give a small tug on her lip, and she whimpered again.
God in Heaven…
She released his lips only to breathe for the briefest of moments, and then sealed her mouth to his again, this time deepening the kiss, threading fingers through his hair, moving her lips over his, and over, and over…
His hands were everywhere; every inch of her back, her hair, her shoulders, her arse, God, when he touched her arse…
She felt an unmistakable hardness pressing into her hip bone, and it sent liquid heat shooting to every inch of her body. Her tongue demanded entrance into his mouth, and he groaned loudly, causing her to whimper again. He tasted musky, simply fucking delicious as she lapped at every inch of the inside of his mouth.
She didn’t notice the wetness on her cheeks until his hands were there, gently prying her face away from his.
He looked into her eyes, with all the smoldering tenderness in the world, concern written over every feature. They were both panting, heaving, and Claire was trembling head to toe. He softly swiped at the tears on her cheeks with his thumbs, and the tenderness of it sent fresh ones trickling down.
Her heart was beating so hard she thought it might leave bruises inside her chest. She thought she might faint from lack of oxygen.
“Are ye alright, mo ghraidh ?”
Despite the cold wetness on her clothes from where they had pressed against his body, she was still glowing with heat from head to toe. She never broke eye contact with him as she nodded slowly.
“Could ye…maybe say something…?” he panted, one corner of his mouth quirking up sheepishly. “Ye’re uh, scarin’ me a bit.” He chuckled breathily, his thumbs making small circles on the apple of her cheeks.
“I…” Her voice was hoarse and cracked. She cleared her throat, averting her gaze only for a moment before realizing that he was not about to let her out of this one; she was going to need to speak. She could feel his burning stare no matter where she looked; she’d feel it even a hundred yards away.
“I’m just…” She forced herself to look back into his eyes, and she felt herself melting, wanting to forgo words and swallow him whole again. “Shocked…I think.”
His eyes twinkled, his mouth breaking into a grin. “Ye didna…ye didn’t know, Sassenach…?”
She tried to laugh, but it only came out as a shuddery gasp. “I think I must have…but I…I didn’t…”
Words were lost as their lips met again, and Claire could not say if it was she who initiated or Jamie. It was much less urgent, but no less passionate. Something colorful bloomed in her heart, and its vines wrapped themselves around each of her ribs, taking root.
Impossible to get rid of.
His hands stayed cupping her cheeks, like he was holding rose petals that would dissolve if he held them too tightly, and her hands stayed planted on his chest. They parted again, and despite this kiss lacking in fervor, they were both equally as breathless as they were from the last one.
Still caressing, their foreheads rested together, and they were breathing each other’s air.
“When…?” Claire whispered, his face blurring in her vision from how close he was.
She didn’t elaborate; she didn’t need to.
When did you know you cared for me?
He chuckled through his nose, and the warm air spread over her face like a summer breeze.
“The first time I heard ye laugh, I heard angels ringing bells.” He moved his hands to her shoulders, nuzzling her face with his nose until his lips were on the tip of hers, and he left a gentle kiss. “I should have known then, I suppose, and maybe I did. But the moment I was really knocked over wi’ it was when ye sent me that video of you and Faith.”
“Look, baby. I love you.”
Claire was hit with a second bombshell that day, this one perhaps leaving more in its wake than the first. He hadn’t actually answered her question, not really. The question he’d answered went more like:
When did you know you loved me…?
When did you know you loved us ?
“Claire…ye must know…everything I’ve ever done fer Faith…it wasna just to get in yer good graces. I swear it.” He tightened his grip on her shoulders. “She’s…she’s precious to me, Claire. She is…a gift. A light in my life that I cherish, so dearly.”
Claire let out a tiny sob, more tears trickling down as she pressed her lips to his again, unable to express any other way what he was doing to her. It was another sweet, brief kiss, but Claire poured every ounce of affection into it that she was capable of.
“I know, Jamie,” she said finally, looking into his eyes. “I know.”
He sighed with what seemed like relief, the smile that followed dazzling her more than the sun itself ever had. He inhaled sharply as he kissed her again, only slightly more urgent than the two before.
“Christ, Claire…to hold ye like this…” He trailed his fingers up her neck, threading them into her hair, stroking the wild curls, twirling them gently. “It’s more than I ever dreamed…”
She laughed nervously, her fingers trembling on his chest.
So he’s dreamed of this…?
Jamie was devoted to her, and more than devoted to her child. He was all in.
But was she?
Could she thaw the walls of ice that she’d sculpted around her fragile heart after Frank? Could she make room for someone else besides Faith? Could she let someone into the life that she had been perfecting for months, for herself and her daughter alone…?
Looking into those eyes, her knee-jerk reaction was: God, yes .
But the more she allowed herself to really think …
Christ, she wanted to vomit.
“What happens now…?” she said instead, desperately willing her trembling fingers to calm themselves.
He hesitated. “Well…nothing, if that’s what ye wish.” Her stomach lurched at that, and she involuntarily fisted his shirt in her hands. “I’m no’ asking anything of ye that ye’re no’ ready for, Claire. Please know that.”
“How can we ever be the same…now?”
“Suppose we canna. But I’ll…I’ll do my best. If that’s what ye want.” He nodded then, a solemn vow to honor her decision.
No ultimatums, no demands, no guilt.
She could still walk away.
The word nothing echoed in her head on an endless loop, making her more and more sick to her stomach.
Could she thaw? Could she make room? Could she let someone in…?
She raked her eyes over his face, his dear, sweet face.
And it hit her.
Yes, she’d been carving this new life for her and her daughter all these months, forging a new path. But she’d been making room for Jamie beside them all along.
He was part of the perfection she’d been creating all this time.
For the first time in months, her heart felt weightless.
“I don’t want…nothing,” she said nervously, looking into his eyes.
She watched the tension melt from his face, watched as his pupils dilated again, as the straining muscles beneath her palms softened once more. Once again in relief, he kissed her soundly, and Claire felt something that she was loath to describe as butterflies , but there was no other word for it.
“So ye’ll…” Now he was trembling. “Ye’ll allow me to court ye then, Sassenach?”
Laughter bubbled up from her chest and escaped in clumsy spurts. “What century are you living in, Sir Jamie?”
He chuckled, averting his gaze shyly. “What would ye have me call it then, My Lady?”
Her face broke out into a grin. “Dating should suffice, I think.”
“Ah,” he said lightly, grinning crookedly. He allowed them to separate a bit, and he gracefully took one of his hands in both of hers. “Will the lady allow me the pleasure of dating her, then?”
She almost wished she hadn’t teased him; the new word sounded so unfitting in his classically tinged lilt. He reverently pressed his lips to her knuckles, never breaking eye contact.
Claire prepared herself for panic, terror, the urge to run, perhaps vomit rushing up her esophagus.
But the only thing she felt when she calmly held his gaze, allowing a tiny smile, was an overwhelming sense of relief.
“Indeed she will.”